Canada’s Nick Pivetta looking to take next step with Phillies

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(ABC TODAY) DUNEDIN, Fla. – Nick Pivetta is on the cusp of breaking camp with a spot in the Philadelphia Phillies rotation, highlighting precisely how much progress he’s made since taking the mound for Canada against Colombia at the World Baseball Classic.

Tim Leiper, the Toronto Blue Jays first base coach who served on the Canadian staff a year ago, marvelled at precisely that as he watched the 25-year-old right-hander throw two clean innings at Dunedin Stadium on Wednesday. ABC TODAY

Pivetta had just five career starts at triple-A under his belt when he limited the Colombians to a run over four innings before a hostile crowd at Marlins Park, and the development hasn’t stopped since.

ABC TODAY “I was saying in the dugout just how much he’s grown over that time,” says Leiper. “He just pitched in one game (at the WBC), he went up to the majors and he struggled, and I remember following him when he went down and talking about the adjustments he made when he went back up and stuck. You look out at the mound now and there’s a guy with confidence, a guy who made adjustments and is really going after hitters now, doing some really good things.

“I see more of a polished pitcher and it’s impressive.”ABC TODAY

The Victoria native was among the few bright spots during Canada’s 0-3 run at the Classic, which included Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne coming out of retirement to pitch for the national team and Freddie Freeman suiting up to honour his late mother, Rosemary, a Toronto native.

“I remember it all,” Pivetta says of his outing versus Colombia. “It was just an honour to represent Canada in that tournament, get my feet wet in that kind of setting and I’m excited for the next time when they call me on to pitch for that team, and do the best I can.”

A fourth-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2013, traded to the Phillies in 2015 for Jonathan Papelbon, Pivetta made his big-league debut April 30 at the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing two runs in five innings with five strikeouts. ABC TODAY

He made three more starts before being optioned back down to triple-A Lehigh Valley, but returned a couple of weeks later and plowed through some ups and downs, finishing the season with a 6.02 ERA but 4.87 FIP in 133 innings over 26 starts. He struck out 140 with 57 walks.

“It was a mix of everything,” Pivetta says of his rookie year. “I got my feet wet a lot, had a lot of learning experiences, learning from my failures and learning from my achievements.

“There are a number of things. Being more consistent with my fastball command, being consistent with my off-speed when it’s crucial to execute my pitches in the right way. Going out there and competing like I love to do and having fun at the same time. I’m very blessed to be in the position I am, I was blessed to have the opportunities I had last year.”

Pivetta threw a fastball that averaged 94.4 mph 66 per cent of the time last season, mixing in a slider and curveball he threw at similar 15 per cent clips along with the occasional change-up.ABC TODAY

Early on, he found himself trying to be too fine, leading to inefficient, high-pitch count outings. Once he returned from his brief demotion, he made a point of trying to pitch more aggressively, with more conviction in his ability.

Over his final three outings of 2017, he allowed just two runs in 17 innings with 19 strikeouts.

“You can’t overplay it. You belong there, they’ve given you the opportunity for a reason, you’re not there just for the heck of it, and you try to live that moment,” he explains. “Slowing down the game is a big (focus). I’ve gotten better at it as time has gone on, especially ending the season the way I did. It was nice.”ABC TODAY

Pivetta spent three years with the Canadian junior national team program and it wasn’t lost on him that as he was putting the final touches on his prep for the regular season, the 2018 group of young Canucks was in Florida on its annual spring trip, aspiring to be what he’s becoming.

ABC TODAY “Being with the junior national team is a stepping stone that got me (moving) in the right direction,” says Pivetta. “Greg (Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams) set a standard for us and I’ve always lived up to that standard. Seeing those guys now and being one of those guys that was on the team that they can look up to is a great honour and I try to represent Canada every single day.”

He did so very well at the World Baseball Classic and is eager to get another shot at it in 2021, the next time the tournament is scheduled to take place, when he could be the type of impact starter Canada lacked in the previous go-round. ABC TODAY

ABC TODAY “I think it’s a great stage for anybody who goes and plays in it,” says Leiper. “We didn’t go too far in the tournament but to play in those games, they’re big, it’s super intense, playing in front of all those people, those experiences are really good. The other thing that’s big is to be around guys like Ryan Dempster, guys who have had good careers, and the amount of knowledge you pick up. Especially playing with guys from your own country, they’re a little bit more giving of information and pull for you a little bit more.”